Thursday, June 12, 2008

During one of his wonderful talks at the Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference, Alaska State Writer Laureate John Straley talked about how as a child, he would take pictures with his mind. He'd look at something he wanted to remember, click his eyes like a camera shutter, and burn the image into his brain. Because I couldn't take many pictures with my camera, here are some mental snapshots from Homer, Alaska:

--Watching otters roll through the water, their hands clasped together as if in prayer, their bodies obviously loving the slow sinuous turning. Seeing some mother otters swimming on their backs, their babies perched on their bellies. Learning that otters have over a million hairs per square inch of their bodies to keep them warm in the cold water.

--Glancing out my window as a bald eagle soared by (this happened several times, but never grew old!)

--Hearing Nora Dauenhauer, Tlingit elder, read her classic poem, "How to Make Good Baked Salmon" (which we were told is read at barbeques all over Alaska.)

--Meeting the most wonderful group of people (I wish there were pictures of all the participants as well as all the faculty!)

--Seeing Anne Lamott pick up one of my books during one of her talks, and say "This is why we love books", then ruffling through the pages to show people the sound of a book, raising the book to her rose to show people how delicious books smell. So cool to see The Book of Dead Birds in her hands! So cool to get to know Anne, too, and to soak in her inspiration (I have many mental snapshots of her sweet face).

--Watching John Straley and David Gessner emerge, stunned and triumphant, from the frigid bay after their post-reading dip (it wasn't surprising to learn that David can be quite the wild man!)

--Watching the light change over the course of the day, gathering in luminous pools on the tops of certain mountains, turning thin and silvery at times, pink and golden at others. Coalescing into the most brilliant rainbow I've ever seen the first night I was there.

--Not seeing whales (sadly), but meeting several people who study whales and who will be great resources if I need to pick brains as I write the whale scenes of my novel-in-progress. Eve Saulitis has studied killer whales for 20 years, recounted in her amazing essay collection, Leaving Resurrection; Nancy Lord has written a wonderful book, Beluga Days, about her work with white whales; Liz Bradfield has studied humpbacks--the whales in my novel--with her partner, and has several whale poems in her gorgeous collection, Interpretive Work; John Straley's wife happens to be a humpback expert, as well. I was deeply moved and inspired by the number of writers at the conference who are also naturalists (it was a boon when we were on the boat tour and Liz was able to name all the birds we saw and give us great information about their behavior; her binoculars, which she let me look through a couple of times, were not too shabby, either). It made me want to spend more time in the wild, observing, learning.

--Marveling at the dandelions. Alaskan dandelions are the most beautiful, robust dandelions I've ever seen. They're dandelions on steriods--big and bright and healthy, their stems succulent and strong. I'm sure 20 hours of light a day helps contribute to their vigor. Of all the wildlife I saw in Homer, it's strangely the dandelions that burn most vividly in my mind now.

--Listening to the amazing, generous work the participants produced in my workshops. I taught three classes--"Finding Your Authentic Voice", "Writing from the Senses" and "Embodying Our Characters"--and the writing that sprang from them blew me away.

--Finding a moose! My last hour in Homer, I told Jo-Ann Mapson (with whom I've shared both professors and editors over the years--so wonderful to connect with her) that I hadn't seen a moose yet, and I asked if we could go in search of one. Everyone else at the conference had seen a moose, it seemed, but I had not been so lucky. So we set out in her car and drove around Homer to no avail; as we were headed back, though, Jo-Ann said "There's one!" I wouldn't have seen it--a pale moose in a little dip of grass by the road--if she hadn't said anything. She pulled over and I ran across the street with her camera to get closer (she's going to send me pictures later); it turned out the moose was a mother, and her baby, a darker caramel color, stood right behind her. The mother turned her head and stared at me, the hair on her back raised and bristled. Jo-Ann later told me that I had gotten a bit too close. But I'm grateful that I was able to get a good close look, that my moose quest was successful. It was a wonderful way to end my time in Homer.

Flying into the Ontario airport was a bit depressing--everything looked so brown and smoggy and industrial. It made me miss the pristine, wide open space of Alaska, the fresh air, the wildness. I hope to return someday and spend even more time exploring the area. For now, I have my mental snapshots to take me back!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Gayle, thank you for sharing all of these delicious snapshots! (I'm just now catching up on my blog-reading, as you might have imagined!)

I loved David Gessners "Transformation" and will show that to my students when I teach a workshop on transformation next month! I couldn't ask for a more illustrative video of the process. ;-)